Las herederas (The Heiresses, 2018)

Finishing up my week of South American cinema is this Paraguayan film, one of the strongest cinematic releases of the past year, quietly telling the story of an ageing woman finding a new lease of life, but without the kind of melodramatic trappings such a plot summary might suggest.


It takes its time to unfold, for us to get a sense of these characters, as they shuffle around their decrepit house in the half-light, but everything starts to come into focus when the feistier of the pair (Chiquita, played by Margarita Irún) is sent to jail for fraud. Their house is falling apart, but it has a grandeur despite the unfaded rectangles on the wall where the paintings have been sold. Men come in every so often to move out a piano or a nice table, because the two ladies need to make money. And then the story of Chela (Ana Brun), the quieter one of the two, starts to take shape, as she embraces a new sense of freedom on her own, chauffeuring the local ladies and making new friends. It’s all in the eyes, and the little turns of her head — it’s a marvellously subtle acting performance from Brun. And there’s a very precise use of sound, for example a cross-fade between a fight within the raucous prison to a salon of elderly women, both environments that contain our central characters, who look to move outwards. There’s a sadness, I suppose — they are both elderly women living in trying times — but also a small glimmer of hope that one can find, even towards the end of your life, something meaningful.

The Heiresses film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Marcelo Martinessi; Cinematographer Luis Armando Arteaga; Starring Ana Brun, Margarita Irún, Ana Ivanova; Length 95 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Soho, London, Friday 10 August 2018.

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Two 2017 Brazilian Films Between Documentary and Fiction: Pendular and Baronesa

One of the most noticeable trends in cinema, of the last decade in particular, has been films which intentionally blur the lines between documentary and fiction, interrogating the ways in which we approach filmed media and the values we place on what we see onscreen. Women filmmakers like Alma Har’el in LoveTrue (2016), and women from South and Central America such as in some recent Mexican films, seem to have taken up this hybrid filmmaking with particular success, not least in these Brazilian examples.


Pendular (2017) [Brazil/Argentina/France]

I rather liked this film about a relationship between two artists, as largely expressed through space and movement. Certainly they never quite seem very comfortable with one another, but he has an enormous warehouse loft and at the outset they demarcate each others’ space. This soon becomes a line of contention and tension, as she does her dance work while he engineers enormous sculptural pieces which rely on suspension and balance — another metaphor for their relationship, of course. Oh and there are some rather intimate sex scenes between them, which have a natural feel, and extend the sense of two people who are alternately pulled together and keep each other apart.

Pendular film posterCREDITS
Director Júlia Murat; Writers Murat and Matias Martini; Cinematographer Soledad Rodríguez; Starring Raquel Karro, Rodrigo Bolzan; Length 108 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Monday 11 March 2019.


Baronesa (2017)

This is a curious film, which deals with people from an impoverished background living in a favela in Belo Horizonte (familiar territory perhaps for a number of filmmakers), but while it comes across very much in the style of a documentary, it does appear to be a fiction film. If so, the actors and director manage to strike an incredibly accurate, naturalistic tone — women hanging out, discussing their partners, touching on sex, alternately laughing and, at one point, running from gunshots. It all feels very unforced, and scarcely exceeds one’s attention at a concise 70 minutes. I notice some reviews namechecking Pedro Costa, which seems odd (perhaps they are reviewing the poster image), given that this seems to bear little relationship to his work. It feels very much like its own thing, another of many recent entries that blur the lines between drama and documentation.

Baronesa film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Juliana Antunes; Cinematographer Fernanda de Sena; Starring Andreia Pereira de Sousa; Length 71 minutes.
Seen at home (Mubi streaming), London, Tuesday 2 October 2018.

Criterion Sunday 259: À ma sœur ! (aka Fat Girl, 2001)

It’s fair to say that, even from her very first film and certainly up until today, Catherine Breillat has been a rather troublesome and controversial figure, increasingly as much for her confrontational views as for her movies (for example, comments minimising the Weinstein allegations, and dismissing the #MeToo reckoning, though these appear to have been in the context of an ill-tempered run-in with Asia Argento). Indeed, Breillat doesn’t exactly fit very neatly into feminist critiques of film, or at least you get the sense that she’d certainly resist that kind of reading. For all that, she’s made some excoriating films, and none more so, I think, than À ma sœur! (released in the US as Fat Girl; apparently Breillat likes the English-language title better, but it certainly seems to change the focus of the film).

This is a work that for all its dark subject matter is really about sisterhood, and while this may suggest a sentimental point of view — and there are some lovely, supportive scenes between the two sisters Anaïs (Anaïs Reboux) and Elena (Roxane Mesquida) — Breillat was of course never going to be content to leave it at that. Instead there are some almighty power plays going on between the two (and equally between the two sisters and their parents, who are fairly detached from their daughters’ emotional states). On a family holiday, Elena falls for a handsome older Italian law student, Fernando (Libero De Rienzo), while Anaïs looks on, pouring scorn on Elena’s gullibility (when she speaks up at all) and apparently fully cognisant of where it’s all leading. All of this unfolds in long sinuous takes, whose gliding grace only seems to intensify the emotion underpinning the relationships. When Fernando wants sex, we barely get a chance to look away from his disingenuous flattery and cajolement, alternately tender and piqued, until he gets his way. In the context of all this, the ending then seems to take the film in an even darker direction, albeit with a strangely defiant final freeze frame reminiscent of The 400 Blows — not that I’d anticipate Breillat following up with an entire series about Anaïs (as Truffaut did with his character), though one can but imagine where her life takes her at this point.

Sometimes Breillat’s dark imagination, the way she plays out these sexual power dynamics (often between young women and older men) can make her films feel unsatisfactory, but in this one she seems to find a way of bringing out the humanity underlying the nastiness. The film could be dismissed as exploitational or emotionally vampiric perhaps, but it never loses sight of the people at the heart of these characters, and their capacity for enduring and reconfiguring disappointment and trauma, at which both the leads excel.

CRITERION EXTRAS:

  • There’s a 5 minute behind the scenes making of featurette, which shows Breillat directing and shooting some scenes, along with a few brief interviews.
  • Two interviews with Breillat are included, one at the Berlin premiere, where she gets into some of the dramas of the film, and the other in which she discusses her working methods, the actors, and the alternative ending — of which there’s footage included.
  • The French and US trailers are included, which have much the same soundscape, though of course the French one includes dialogue from the film where the US one does not. The US trailer also does that thing of basically recapping the entire movie and even includes the final shot of the film.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Catherine Breillat; Cinematographer Yorgos Arvanitis Γιώργος Αρβανίτης; Starring Anaïs Reboux, Roxane Mesquida, Libero De Rienzo, Arsinée Khanjian Արսինէ Խանճեան; Length 86 minutes.

Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Monday 16 July 2001 (then later on VHS at home, Wellington, January 2003, and most recently on Blu-ray at home, London, Saturday 10 July 2019).

Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)

I have to admit that some of my film choices in watching Australian cinema (or indeed, a lot of older cinema) are driven by what’s in the collections at my local DVD rental store, Close-Up — yes we still have one in London, and when I say “local”, I mean that it’s the only one (so far as I’m aware) in the city. It has a pretty diverting selection, but it also means I can’t claim any comprehensive overview of the development of the national cinema, which would in any case surely be beyond the purview of a video shop halfway around the world. Still, there are a few interesting titles, including a number of films directed by women, some of which — as these ones do — show their age a little bit. The early-2000s, after all, does feel like a hangover from the 90s.

Continue reading “Two Early-2000s Australian Films Directed by Women: The Monkey’s Mask (2000) and Japanese Story (2003)”

My Brilliant Career (1979)

Having started my Australian-themed film week with Celia, I’m skipping back ten years to a real classic of the era, and a film that launched the career of one of Australia’s best known directors, Gillian Armstrong, whose 1992 film The Last Days of Chez Nous I’ve also reviewed on here. (NB I only realised after watching and writing the text below that this has recently been released on the Criterion Collection, but it won’t be until 2032 that I’ll get to that film, so expect another review in, er, 13 years.)


This film is now 40 years old, and I wonder whether a lot of the issues that it addresses, the rich emotional lives it affords to its characters, and particularly the way it resolves the central romantic pairing, are still somewhat ahead of their time even now. There are certainly plenty of filmmakers who could do some catching up. Published originally in 1901, My Brilliant Career is a late-19th century story of colonial Australia starring a young Sam Neill (who almost 40 years later would be in a quite different rendering of a similar period in Sweet Country). Here he plays Harry, a dashing young man competing for the hand of Sybylla, but it’s very much her film, and that of Judy Davis who plays her. Indeed the very first scene sets that much out, as Davis makes an iconic entrance* reading the words of Miles Franklin, that this is a story about her. It’s also a story about finding one’s own way in the world (shades of The Souvenir which I just watched yesterday) and about colonial-era class relationships, though the society it depicts remains very white (there are some Aboriginal servants, but these are only glanced briefly in the background). At this remove, it feels like there’s a preponderance of Australian cinema dealing with its colonial European past from the 1970s, though that’s partly just how brightly Picnic at Hanging Rock still shines, but each of these films deserves its place in expanding the possibilities of a specifically Australian cinema, and Syb (as Harry calls her) feels like a very modern woman, even now, even in 2019.

* I don’t know if it’s iconic, but it should be.

My Brilliant Career film posterCREDITS
Director Gillian Armstrong; Writer Eleanor Witcombe (based on the novel by Miles Franklin); Cinematographer Donald McAlpine; Starring Judy Davis, Sam Neill, Wendy Hughes; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 1 September 2019.

The Souvenir (2019)

The big release to UK cinemas this week — at least to the cinephiles amongst us — is Joanna Hogg’s latest film (though the ornery black-and-white Bait by Mark Jenkin is certainly also worth checking out). She’s been directing feature films for only around 10 years now, since 2008’s Unrelated, starring a young Tom Hiddleston, but already they’ve fairly comprehensively dealt with a certain strain of upper-middle-class English life, which is only extended in this latest film. I’ve also been familiar with her work in the À Nos Amours collective, whose programming has focused on interesting filmmakers, not least in the complete retrospective they gave to the work of Chantal Akerman shortly before the latter’s death.


If Joanna Hogg makes films about frightfully upper-middle-class people, I’m supposing it must be her own background:* one of the production companies on the film is “JWH Films” (presumably her initials), which also appear on monogrammed suitcases for our heroine Julie, so I’m assuming an auto-biographical resonance to this tale (Tilda Swinton was in Hogg’s student graduation film in 1986, while Julie here is played by Swinton’s daughter Honor). For the first stretch of The Souvenir, indeed, I was unclear if this was a period film or if everyone was just a pretentious hipster with their non-digital cameras and rotary home phones, but it becomes clear soon enough that it’s set in the mid-1980s, with Julie attending film school. She cuts a frustratingly diffident figure, and at a party hooks up with a dandyish cad called Anthony (Tom Burke); their subsequent meetings seem most often to be accompanied by a bottle of champagne on ice in private members’ club dining rooms, so it’s clear both of them are born into privilege.

In fact, they are both fairly terrible people, though he is (in several senses) the abusive one that’s no good for her, and the remainder of the film is both about the way he helps her to define herself, but also how she struggles to get free of his sometimes malign influence. It’s told in a captivatingly elliptical way, these sort of interlocking fragments of stories with a poetically cavalier sense of space and continuity, even as it has a very precise way of locating its characters. He’s the kind of person who’s identified not just as an Oxbridge man (for what else could he possibly be), but to the very detail of his college — King’s College, Cambridge if I recall correctly — while she lives in a flat very close to Peter Jones department store on the King’s Road in London.

It is, at times, very difficult to warm to either of the characters, yet somehow that’s not a problem to enjoying the film (at least, not to me, though the more Tory-phobic may well disagree), not least because it seems to be told with a strong sense of both wistful regret and empathy for these young characters and their foolishness. There’s the way Julie manages not to be aware of Anthony’s addictive personality until long after the audience has sussed, and thereafter seems to put it aside or make apologies for it. There’s the way she earnestly wishes to make a film about dockworkers in Sunderland living in poverty and how this is (very gently) questioned by her tutors, which leads to an amusing cut to her listening to Robert Wyatt’s cover of “Shipbuilding” while storyboarding this student project, the keen implication being that it was indeed a youthful overextension of her sense of empathy (and certainly Hogg is now very much drawing from her own experience). There are all kinds of hints by the film that these characters are now sufficiently removed  from the present day to warrant judgement, and that makes their actions easier to understand, if not always condone, and ultimately that’s part of what makes me admire this film.

* Indeed, subsequent reading I’ve done about the film, along with interviews with the director, makes it clear that this film is indeed drawn very deeply from Hogg’s own life.

The Souvenir film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Joanna Hogg; Cinematographer David Raedeker; Starring Honor Swinton Byrne, Tom Burke, Tilda Swinton; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 31 August 2019.

Only You (2018)

Josh O’Connor already starred in probably the most celebrated British romantic drama of 2017, God’s Own Country, but whether playing gay or straight it turns out he seems to be suited to difficult, bruising romances far better than the light and fluffy kinds which are released on Netflix every other week. This film, directed by a woman (don’t be confused by her name), is built around pregnancy just like in, say, Alice Lowe’s Prevenge (2016), but takes a somewhat different approach.


This is a very romantic film, distilled down to something very elemental; you could call it a two-hankie weepie even. Jake (Josh O’Connor) and Elena (Laia Costa, who was in Victoria) are two young people (though she’s a little older than he is) who meet cute in Glasgow. Neither of them are Scottish (he’s English, she’s Spanish), and it becomes clear that this is set before Brexit as the film progresses, otherwise her resistance to marriage might seem somewhat self-defeating. Nevertheless, they hit it off and pretty soon there’s a sex scene where he suggests having a baby, which feels like a stretch to assume after such a short time that she’d want to conceive, but pretty soon that becomes an obsession for her, and thereafter everything starts to unravel. There’s coordinating their sex with her fertility cycles, then the IVF and the injections (which all entails money), and the constant pregnancy tests followed by crying jags in the bathroom, and their strained relationship as a result of all this. We talk a lot in our current culture about “toxic masculinity” — that set of codes that defines and limits how men are supposed to act in the world — but this film seems to be about whatever women’s equivalent to that is: a slightly insidious idea that to be doing womanhood correctly you need to have a baby (which even if you’re only thinking about cis womanhood, is deeply problematic). And so Elena gets the little nags from those around her, finding that all her friends are starting to have kids, and she starts to feel excluded from gatherings and become desperate to be part of the in-group. It should really be a lot more painful a film than it is (and I don’t doubt it will be to some people), but the director manages to get her actors to find the humanity and the warmth underneath all this, so that it’s never quite as bleak as it could be.

Film posterCREDITS
Director Harry Wootliff; Writers Wootliff and Matthieu de Braconier; Cinematographer Shabier Kirchner; Starring Laia Costa, Josh O’Connor; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 13 July 2019.

Mary Shelley (2017)

Another rather dour heritage film was made recently about the writer of Frankenstein by expatriate Saudi director Haifaa al-Mansour, more famous (and justly so) for Wadjda (2012).


Watching this reminds me of going to lots of alternately dour and somewhat mediocre costume dramas in the mid-1990s (titles come to mind like Moll Flanders, Restoration or Mary Reilly). I cannot in any good conscience say that this is a good or well-written movie, but it has its moments, and given those youthful trips to the cinema, I do still have a nostalgic fondness for frock dramas featuring intelligent young women gadding about with blackguards and bounders. Sadly, the film doesn’t really give enough of a lucid focus to Mary’s story (played with spirit by Elle Fanning) and, despite the title, the film’s primary interest appears to be her relationship with Percy Bysshe Shelley (Douglas Booth), though it does its best to dramatise her own literary inspiration. There are too many scenes in the half-light of people reciting lines to one another, so ultimately this feels greatly inferior to Bright Star (2009) or other films about literary figures. However, Bel Powley does once again steal the film with her portrayal of Mary’s impulsive step-sister Claire.

Mary Shelley film posterCREDITS
Director Haifaa al-Mansour هيفاء المنصور; Writer Emma Jensen; Cinematographer David Ungaro; Starring Elle Fanning, Douglas Booth, Bel Powley, Tom Sturridge, Maisie Williams; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Bloomsbury, London, Saturday 7 July 2018.

Tell It to the Bees (2018)

British cinema is in constant dialogue with the heritage industry, and there is no shortage of films set in the past — with particularly popular eras being during World War II and the 1950s (as seen here), the Victorian age, or the Tudors. Plenty of women have turned their hand to this heritage, finding further interest in underseen representations (particularly in recent years): Amma Assante put a Black British perspective into the 18th century in Belle, while this film’s conservative small town 1950s setting adds a lesbian romance.


If there’s one thing I’ve gained growing up, it’s a tolerance for fairly desultory period movies, especially ones set in gloomy parts of the UK. This one is set in Scotland in 1952, which is more or less exactly when Carol (2015) was set, but this takes rather a different, let’s say more traditional arc. The two central women (Holliday Grainger’s Lydia, and Anna Paquin’s Dr Jean Markham) find each other and then, in time-honoured fashion, unleash all the ire and judgement that a small close-minded town can muster — and, in the final act, this feels like rather too much. I liked the set-up, and I particularly liked both central performances, even if Anna Paquin has a patchy Scottish accent and spends much of the film looking anguished. There’s also some rather iffy bee CGI towards the end, extending a metaphor which doesn’t entirely hold together. Basically I wanted to like this well-mounted film more than I ended up doing, but it has its moments.

CREDITS
Director Annabel Jankel; Writers Henrietta Ashworth and Jessica Ashworth (based on the novel by Fiona Shaw); Cinematographer Bartosz Nalazek; Starring Holliday Grainger, Anna Paquin; Length 106 minutes.
Seen at Curzon Mayfair, London, Saturday 20 July 2019.

Muna Moto (aka The Child of Another, 1975)

A beatifully-restored new (digital) print of this Cameroonian picture which deals with traditional ideas of marriage, with a fairly thoroughgoing critique of the same. Our two leads are N’gando (David Endene) and N’kome (Arlette Din Bell), young lovers, but he’s the ward of his uncle M’bongo (Philippe Abia, who has taken N’gando’s mother as one of his four wives), and now his uncle sets his eyes on N’kome as a possible mother to the child he hasn’t yet had. Key to this is the uncle’s access to money for a dowry (which N’gando must rely on his uncle to provide), and so there’s a battle for her affections which takes little account of her feelings, and so she is slowly closed off from both of them, leaving nobody in a good place. The structure of the film is fascinating, as it intercuts N’gando searching for N’kome during a local festival (filmed in a documentary verité style) long after they’ve been forced apart, with reminiscences and flashbacks of their time together. It’s also beautifully shot in black-and-white and undoubtedly a key work in African cinema.

Muna Moto film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jean-Pierre Dikongué Pipa; Cinematographers Jean-Luc Léon and Jean-Pierre Dezalay; Starring David Endene, Arlette Din Bell, Philippe Abia; Length 89 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.